Paul Bloom’s recent New Yorker essay, “The Baby in the Well,” has created a small internet stir by calling out the many vices rather than the oft heralded virtues of empathy—a major academic and self-help trend. Bloom’s basic criticism can be summed as follows: empathy distracts us from what really matters since it requires feeling or relating to the situation of others to necessitate social/political action; such feelings are typically directed at concerns of relative insignificance when compared to situations of dire importance that fail to engender much empathy. Hence Bloom’s point that empathy justified the millions of dollars in charitable donations given to the relatively affluent community of Sandy Hook, despite the fact that almost twenty million American children go to bed hungry each night.
But does Bloom really believe that it is foolish to empathize with the pain of others? Some see in Bloom’s position this very thing, namely an overly rational take on human relations which they label “anti-empathy.” For these critics Bloom is missing the larger point: the power that empathy has to facilitate human solidarity in the hope of creating a better world.